“I shook up the world!” Famous words uttered by “The Greatest” that not only came to define Muhammad Ali himself, but also the victory of the underdog. Back in 1964 no one gave Ali, then Cassius Clay, a chance to beat Sonny Liston, the monstrous and intimidating heavyweight champion of the world, the man who had twice demolished Floyd Patterson in less than a single round. But beat him Clay did, proving once again that the odds don’t predict the outcome.
Of course Ali is far from the only fighter to topple a giant from his pedestal. Who can forget when Buster Douglas overcame 42-1 odds to vanquish undisputed heavyweight king Mike Tyson? What about April 22, 2001 in South Africa, when Hasim Rahman flattened champion Lennox Lewis with a single right hand bomb? Other upsets come to mind: Lloyd Honeyghan stopping Donald Curry to become welterweight king, and Roberto Duran winning the decision in a brutal war over the younger and bigger Iran Barkley to claim a middleweight strap.
I have always admired the plight of the underdog, the fighters who are counted out before their opportunity to compete has even arrived. Perhaps the primary reason is their mindset of absolute faith and determination. Despite the fact few give them any chance, they believe in themselves with complete conviction. Having that kind of self-belief is inspiring and merits admiration because for most of us, it’s easy to be consumed by self-doubt. To see someone overcome and overpower their doubts and go on to triumph on the grand stage of a championship boxing match, that is truly inspiring. Underdogs show us that, no matter the odds or the prophecies of the naysayers, victory is always possible.
Another reason why I love the underdog is because I identify as one. Now I will be the first to admit, my upbringing is not synonymous with hardship or poverty. I am lucky to have been raised in a middle-class home, where my siblings and I were provided with all we needed. But I’ve had my struggles and I got through them with hard work and persistence. Many of us view ourselves the same way, as an underdog, because of our own setbacks and difficulties. It isn’t easy to rebound from defeat, no matter what kind, but by facing what seemed like insurmountable odds, one can find a way to persevere and overcome.
And when it comes to boxing, one fighter who, for me, embodies the underdog is Evander Holyfield. I want to pay tribute to the man they call “The Real Deal” because he recently received his call to the International Boxing Hall of Fame as a member of the 2017 class. Holyfield’s career was often a battle against the odds, even from the beginning when he started out as a cruiserweight. He was a definite underdog when, in only his 12th pro fight, he challenged experienced veteran and respected champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi, who dwarfed him in regards to pro ring experience. Although Holyfield was younger and fresher, many thought Qawi was too big a challenge for Evander at that stage of his career.
In an incredibly grueling 15 round slugfest, one later hailed as the cruiserweight “Fight of the Decade” by Ring magazine, Holyfield and Qawi went to war. Proving the veracity of his nickname, “The Camden Buzzsaw” applied unrelenting pressure on his young challenger, imposing his style of vicious trench warfare. Holyfield had some success keeping the distance and boxing at range, but he was forced to trade in close quarters more often than he desired. But “The Real Deal” gave as good as he got on the inside and used his quicker hands to outwork and outland the champion. The battle took a huge toll on both men, with Holyfield losing 15 pounds of water weight during the fight and even urinating blood after it was all over. But it was somehow only fitting that Evander would have to emerge from such a brutal war to become champion and in the process demonstrate to himself and the world his astonishing heart, will and determination.
Those qualities would be called upon again and again in a career that saw Evander Holyfield repeatedly battle fighters who were naturally bigger and heavier. Another time when Holyfield proved the doubters wrong was when he went tooth and nail with Riddick Bowe in three fights, a man who vastly outsized him in height and weight. In the incredible tenth round of their first battle, Bowe landed a monstrous right uppercut that jolted Holyfield’s head back and put him in a world of hurt. The much bigger challenger, heavier by some 30 pounds, proceeded to hammer Holyfield around the ring, unloading vicious power punches to the head and body. To everyone’s amazement, Evander not only remained upright but eventually turned the tide in his favor, ending the round in control and out-landing his arm-weary opponent.
Although Holyfield lost that fight, he proved his unrelenting spirit by surviving that hellacious tenth round and going the distance with Bowe, who was arguably the career-best version of himself on that November 1992 night. And Evander proved himself again, not to mention scoring another upset, when he came back and defeated Bowe in the rematch one year later.
Of course there’s no better example of Holyfield’s capacity to upset the odds than the night he finally took on Iron Mike Tyson in 1996. Although Tyson was not the invincible force of his prime, he was still the most feared heavyweight on the planet. “The Real Deal” was a 17-1 underdog heading into the clash and most experts viewed his challenge of “Iron Mike” as a suicide mission, one where the question of the match wasn’t who would win, but could the challenger survive the match without serious physical damage. But Evander Holyfield paid no attention to what the outsiders and skeptics believed; all he needed was to believe in himself and he did so unfailingly.
During the fight, the Atlanta native had to endure some tough moments, weathering some big shots from one of the most explosive punchers in the history of the heavyweight division. But never did Holyfield’s fighting spirit fail him. He took those bombs and made sure to always respond in kind, punctuating every exchange with his own solid blows. He was determined to stand up to Tyson and show him he wasn’t the least bit intimidated. In instances when “Iron Mike” threw a punch after the bell and Holyfield always immediately retaliated, making sure to get in the last shot. This was all part of Evander’s psycholgical gameplan, to impose his will and sear into Tyson’s mind that he could not intimidate the underdog challenger. And it worked, as Holyfield bullied the bully, on the way to scoring one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.
Not only do I appreciate Evander Holyfield for his career accomplishments, but also because he is the boxer who ignited my own passion for The Sweet Science. I was a teenager when I read his autobiography and I was enthralled by his career and his story, the fact that he always believed in himself, and that he routinely battled bigger, heavier men and more often than not emerged victorious. I appreciate the plight of underdogs because, no matter what, they soldier on and overcome the odds with tremendous self-belief, an extremely enviable quality. And I believe that if I can maintain the same kind of determination and persistence as Evander Holyfield, I will be putting myself in the best possible position to achieve future success. Thank you, Evander, for the excitement and inspiration you’ve given millions of fight fans, and congratulations on your induction into Canastota! — Jamie Rebner